Tuesday, February 18, 2003

As far as politics goes, Nathan Newman has covered all bases recently: Blair, Bush, the Kurds and Dennis Kucinich's switch on abortion. And, while we're waiting for the Senate to get back to work, read Sam Heldman on Estrada.

It's a good month for art in New York. The da Vinci show at the Metropolitan, the Matisse-Picasso show at MoMA and now Manet-Velazquez also at The Met. I didn't know about this last one until I read about it in The Times on Sunday, but this show may be the one I'm most interested in, though depending on how it is curated, I might end up more frustrated by it as well. Velazquez is one of my favorite artists and Manet, and in fact the whole French 19th century, has become a minor preoccupation for me in the past couple of years. I may put up something soon on Matisse-Picasso (I'm seeing it on Monday) but I want to say something first about Manet-Velazquez, since everything about these two artists is so fitting to our present 'unenviable situation.'

Some art can have at it's center a sort of involuntary honesty. I wrote about this in relation to Velazquez in the first few weeks of this blog.  Philip IV was a weak King, and from the looks of Velazquez' portraits of him, a nebbish. But the painter was a sincere believer in the King and what he represented. He had been raised in a country where painting was seen as more a craft than a high art and yet he had helped to transform it, in his lifetime, into a symbol of educated sophistication. Velazquez was trained as a humanist in a country without a long humanist tradition, and he was a willing servant of a king who ruled, Velazquez believed, as we know, by divine right. But he not only painted the servants and the bit players as well as his employer and family, he showed the servants, including handmaidens, buffoons and dwarfs, a courtesy and respect few other artists, and no one else in his position, would ever attempt. As I wrote, he did not depict nobility itself "but an image of the nobility of the need to believe." The weight of that desire, what is in fact the weight of a pretense, is excruciating, but he has chosen it himself. The most amazing backward glance in the history of art.

Manet was in a similar position in some ways, but his honesty caused more professional problems. And he also lacked something as a technnician. Manet did not have a great hand, but he had an intelligent eye. And he was not a hypocrite. In a nation of hypocrites that's a lonely position to be in. When he painted naked women he found ways to acknowledge in painting, in the material, in the expressions on the faces, that he was paying them to sit there. If a woman was bored he painted her looking bored. When he painted prostitutes, they looked like prostitutes. And he was condemned by men who had sex with prostitutes for being vulgar. But he wasn't being vulgar for vulgarity's sake, he was trying to describe things that art was almost incapable of describing by the time he was doing it. [Q4 later: Does it also have something to do with France being a Catholic country? unlike the Netherlands? Catholic idealism etc]

Baudelaire nails it in a letter that T.J. Clark, in The Painting of Modern Life, calls a "kind and annihilating reply" to a letter from Manet whining about being rejected by the critics: (After referring to greater men who had suffered ridicule) "They did not die of it. And... I shall add that these men were exemplary, each in his own genre, and in a world which was very rich, while you, you are only the first in the decrepitude of your art."
Manet was trying to describe what he saw, and give it weight and substance -a financial transaction between a man and woman can have substance, but what kind? [again Q: Catholic v. Protestant? Weber etc.?] - while others, in many cases of greater technical skill but much less intelligence, were making a killing posing prostitutes as wood nymphs, and producing art of no substance at all.

Art has to have substance and weight to be worth remembering. And in times of crisis, that weight comes from fear. All art is to a large degree conservative -it is after all trying to conserve or husband something, some desire or event in memory- and the visual arts are the most conservative, producing commodities in small amounts (if you're only interested in the words, one 'copy' of a book is as good as another).
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